Ballooning spiders at the Chicago Hilton!

July 12, 2012 • 11:39 am

Alert reader John sent me this recent notice from the Chicago Hilton, located downtown.

Now there are two minor errors here, most notably the misspelling of the species, which is really Larinioides sclopetarius. Note, too, that the second name in the Latin binomial is never capitalized though the first one is; this is a common error, almost as common as capitalizing neither name, as in “homo sapiens”, or not using italics). And if there are arachnologists reading, they may see further flubs.

But that’s picking nits. What impresses me is that the biology is basically correct, and they impart so much of it to the wary guests (“spinnerets,” “orb weaving”, the ecology, and so on).  Kudos to the Chicago Hilton for giving guests a biology lesson, even though it’s clearly designed to allay their fears about Flying Spiders.

A 1999 New York Times article about building a high-rise apartment in Chicago noted the following:

There may be one other barrier between residents and their views: the orb-shaped web of Larinioides sclopetarius, the high-rise spider. [JAC: ITALICS, plz!]

”It’s a species that’s attracted to rocks overhanging water,” said Dr. Petra Sierwald, a curator at the Field Museum here. ”These high-rise buildings are just very big rocks overhanging water.”

High-rise spiders can climb or balloon to the top on strands of silk blossoming from their spinnerets. They are clever enough to hide before the window washers arrive and plucky enough to spin a new web after the crew moves on.

”These critters eat like kings,” Dr. Sierwald said. ”It’s prime real estate for spiders.”

Here, by the way, is a specimen of the High Rise Flying Spider:

Wikipedia has a nice article on spider ballooning. Read and learn (do it!):

A spider or spiderling after hatching will climb as high as it can. The spider then stands on raised legs with its abdomen pointed upwards. This is known as “tiptoeing”. After that, it starts releasing several silk threads from its abdomen into the air, which automatically form a triangular shaped parachute. The spider can then let itself be carried away by updrafts of winds, where even the slightest of breeze will do. Most rides will end a few metres later, or a spider can be taken up into a jet stream, which depends on its mass, posture, the convectionair current, drag of silk and parachute to float and travel high up into the upper atmosphere.

Many sailors have reported spiders being caught in their ship’s sails, over 1600 km from land (Heimer 1988). They have even been detected in atmospheric data balloons collecting air samples at slightly less than 5 km (16000 ft) above sea level.Apparently it is the most common way for spiders to invade isolated islands and mountaintops. Spiderlings are known to survive without food travelling in air currents of jet streams for 25 days or longer.

Here’s a really lovely video of a baby spider ballooning. Watch it to the end; it comes into focus, the silk comes out, and poof!—the spider’s off on a journey to the unknown.

28 thoughts on “Ballooning spiders at the Chicago Hilton!

    1. Ha! I saw that the second I put it up and fixed it; unfortunately, it gets disseminated with the error, making me look illiterate.

      Well, so be it. Ceiling Cat cant spel gud anyway.

  1. I think, in botanical nomenclature, trivial epithets based on a person’s name are capitalized.

    Hydra do something similar, secreting a gas bubble and floating away in the water. There was a Far Side cartoon about ballooning buffalo. Anyway a nice write up.

      1. It used to be so—I have a 1925 New Zealand Flora with commemorative epithets capitalized—but it hasn’t been the convention for well over half a century.

  2. “Ballooning” seems a bit of a misnomer, since the silk encloses no gas and is certainly not lighter than air. “Kiting” or “parachuting” (as used in the Wikipedia article) would be more accurate.

    But whatever you call it, it’s still cool.

  3. My wife and I were once walking on a dike in the middle of Tiny Marsh (1.5 hours north of Toronto) when were were caught in the middle of a huge spider “migration”.

    There air was full of thousands of ballooning spiders and there was no getting away. Soon, we had spiders crawling all over us. We didn’t like it.

    1. Cool!
      I mean… er… I see how that could be the start of a cheap horror movie, but it’s also a good story which which to impress your grandchildren.

  4. In the e-mail versions of J.C.’s postings WorldPress include a last line slogan reading

    “Thanks for flying with”

    The spiders give that a new meaning, eh?

  5. And Orb weavers build some absolutely beautiful webs! I used to spend hours watching them in my back yard.

    Of course the really large spiders I saw when I lived in Okinawa would give a lot of people nightmares. I used to love to toss them a bit of food in the form of a cicada or grasshopper.

  6. I was recently playing in the surf in Kailua Bay, Oahu. I was about 50′ from shore when a spider landed on my arm, out of nowhere! I am terrified of spiders and shrieked, causing people around me to think I’d seen a shark! Worse for me. ..a spider, in the ocean! My husband explained that it had probably ballooned from a palm tree, but now that we’ve read this article it seems that it may have ballooned from another island. Totally cool!

  7. The Times seems to be very sparing in its use of italics. The style manual specifically forbids italicizing genus and species names, and I’ve noticed they don’t italicize book titles or the names of ships. It’s probably a holdover from the hot-type days, when italics must’ve been a pain to deal with, but I wonder if they don’t also see it as a bit of a stumbling block for the reader.

    1. E.B. White took a lot of care with his arachnological details in “Charlotte’s Web.” He consulted by letter with Willis J. Gertsch, who was curator of arachnids at the American Museum of Natural History.

  8. Another thing that’s neat about the orb-weaving spiders we have here on the Northwet Coast is the way the spiderlings behave.

    For a short while after hatching they all keep together in a mass. When disturbed such as by being gently blown on, they scatter, each one dropping quickly away while suspended by its thread.

    For those with a sense of childish awe, it’s impressive.

  9. I am confused as to why it would be a problem living with a spider or two? Are they dangerous? If not, surely all they would do is eat a passing fly every now & then…?

    1. I’ve been tempted to let them live inside with me but I wonder if they would attract their predators such as mice? What to do if they start having babies I don’t want lots of them inside? Even if they aren’t venomous a bite to a baby or child wouldn’t be desirable, how to ensure that wouldn’t happen?

      1. Spiders get blamed for a lot of bites they don’t actually inflict. They will stab with their fangs in defense, but orb weavers like these spiders will generally flee looming humans. Even if they land on you, they will tend to drop off if threatened rather than bite. And even if they do bite, very few spiders are what’s called “medically significant.” The best way to avoid spider bites is to wear gloves if you’re sticking your hands into woodpiles, dark corners, or other spider-friendly places and shake out boots that you haven’t worn for a long time. I’m guessing the hotel is warning people just because a lot of people get freaked out by spiders.

  10. How large is that high-rise spider pictured above?
    Gorgeous markings; reminds me of Persian carpets. (Which suggests to me how the Central Asian human spinners developed some of their carpet patterns in the first place.)

    1. From the picture it looks to be about the length of the width of a finger, that being said, i would guess that its a tad small even for a spider.

    2. From the picture it appears to be in a “cage” and the pinkish blob is a finger tip so one would assume not very large at all

  11. I used to live near the top of a Chicago high rise and those spiders were all over the windows in the summer. Saw one try to take on a wasp and she got stung in the abdomen and dropped like a rock!

  12. I just wanted to stop by and say that, as a “crazy” evangelical christian, most christians actual have not problem with micro-evolution. Which this is an obvious great example. We have a problem with Macro-evolution, the idea that a class evolve over time to bring about different classes. Although there is some evidence to support macroevolution there is still much to debate.

  13. What struck me (and someone may have mentioned this, I didn’t read all the comments) is that it is stated in the letter that the building mimic the rock formations for the spiders. Then it states “What makes high-rises so appealing is the light shining through the windows.” Huh? I haven’t seen many rock formations with lights shining out of them. 🙂

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